Thursday, May 18, 2006

Some Question KR Judges’ Soviet-Era Schooling

By Prak Chan Thul and Whitney Kvasger
The Cambodia Daily
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

With a question mark hanging over the suitability of some Khmer Rouge tribunal appointees, opinions differed last week as to whether a communist bloc education emphasized the pursuit of truth and justice or loyalty to the ruling party and the security of the state.

Of the 17 Cambodian judges and prosecutors appointed to the tribunal, four received their legal education in Cambodia, four were schooled in Kazakhstan and three in the USSR, of whom one pursued further study in Japan.

Three more studied in Vietnam, two in East Germany and one in France.

Awarded a doctorate in law from the National University of Kazakhstan, Ratanakkiri Provincial Court Director Yar Narin said that attending college in the communist bloc during the 1970s and 1980s was comparable to any Western equivalent.

“I believe that all places are the same. The law is the law,” Yar Narin said by telephone last week.

“Communist or democrat, the law is the law. If there is a law but there is not enough evidence, we can’t charge people,” he said.

“There is no difference,” said Yar Narin, who was appointed to the tribunal’s supreme court chambers.

Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema, who in 1985 studied political science in Hanoi, agreed.

Kep Chuktema said that his classes emphasized research and writing, and that his education in Veitnam gave him the leadership skills needed to lead the capital.

“Education in Vietnam is no different,” he said, but added that he had not studied in the US.

Though the educational standards were unquestionable, some aspects of a communist education do not translate well in contemporary times, he said.

“Communism has some theories from the 1800s. We must know how to update always. Look to China’s economy, because China updated before it was too late. The Soviet Union didn’t update, and it collapsed,” he said.

Finance Ministry Secretary-General Hang Chuon Naron, who earned a doctorate in international economies in the USSR, warned against judging tribunal appointees by the country where they went to university. Judges and prosecutors draw on more than their schooling during trial proceedings, he said.

“Education in the USSR and Vietnam is acceptable, like anywhere else. But [a judge’s] commitment to the profession is very important,” he added. “It’s not really where you study but who you are.”

Legal expert Lao Mong Hay said that the Soviet educations system emphasized loyalty to the party, adding that the courts operated under the assumption that defendants were guilty until proven innocent. “Soviet trial proceedings rely on confessions and a strong degree of assuming guilt,” he said.

According to information compiled by the US Library of Congress, education in Soviet countries focused on political indoctrination, while the Supreme Court answered to the Politburo.

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia and the second largest of the states of the former Soviet Union, after Russia.

“The Soviet Union knew no rule of law as we conceive of it today...unfortunately, the Kazakh judiciary throughout its young history has remained largely within the control of the executive,” the American bas Association said in a 2004 report.

The Kazakh president has the power to determine how many judges the country should have and how much they should be paid, the report said.

Except for the Supreme Court, whose members are elected by the Senate based on the president’s recommendation, all judges are appointed directly by the president. “In some important respects, the legal system has not changed significantly since the Soviet times,” the American Bar Association said.

In Vietnam, the constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary, according to the US State Department. “However, in practice [the Communist Party of Vietnam] controls the courts at all levels, selecting judges, at least in part, for their political reliability,” the State Department said in a 2005 report.

Sam Rainsy Party Acting Secretary-General Meng Rita, who in 1992 studied urology in the formerly Soviet-controlled Ukraine, said he remembered higher education as a strict environment that did not emphasize critical thinking.

“The schools didn’t care about quality, they cared more about the discipline of internal regulations...that students came to class on time, that they had high test scores and wore the uniform,” he said.

He also said that the Cambodian students in Soviet schools during the 1970s and 1980s were chosen to study abroad as a reward for loyalty to the ruling party in Phnom Penh.

Meng Rita said that he was given a scholarship because he worked in Phnom Penh’s Russian Hospital.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana declined to comment on the educational credentials of the trial appointees, saying they should be allowed to prove themselves in court. “Let’s see their work first,” Ang Vong Vathana said.

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